5 Covid-19 Lessons for Effective Climate Change Response

Covid-19 Lessons: We can’t put climate change on hold while we deal with a pandemic. But we can listen to Covid-19’s message and take climate action before it gets worse.

By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS

In 2014, the United States Department of Defense, the world’s biggest polluter and one of the largest sources of carbon emissions on Earth, called climate change “a threat multiplier.”

It should know.

Since that time, humans have felt the effects. Storms more severe, wildfires burning longer and farther, droughts more prolonged.

In 2019, there were 14 extreme weather events in the United States, each causing over $1 billion in damage and destruction. 

Previously, between 2016-2018, the number of billion-dollar weather events in each of those years was more than double the long-term average.  

Now in 2020, as hurricane season begins, and the wildfire season not too far behind, we’re left wondering — and fearing — what’s in store. 

Throw a pandemic in the mix, and we’re really coursing through unchartered waters.

Here, before we get overwhelmed by panic and desperation over natural catastrophes, I offer a few ideas on ways to cope with the challenges of our “new normal.”

So far, I see 5 key takeaways from the virus. Using Covid-19’s lessons as guideposts for dealing with our analogous climate crisis may be a worthwhile strategy for safeguarding our future well-being. 

Covid comic by Brenna Quinlan

Covid-19 Lesson #1: Society can change rapidly.

A couple of months ago, humans were using huge amounts of fossil fuels in their daily lives. Here are some of the major ways:

  • Commuting to work or school by car (usually alone)
  • Jetsetting all over the world by plane for business and leisure
  • Transporting trillions of dollars worth of goods in global markets
  • Consuming large amounts of meat.

Today, very few people are engaged in these activities.

Working from home and virtual business meetings have become standard practice. As more and more people discover the benefits and lower costs of doing business this way, I predict they will become commonplace.

As schools are shuttered, online education is gaining in popularity at the high school and college levels, and predicted to go mainstream. Homeschooling — or crisis schooling — is also practiced by families worldwide.

A few countries, like Romania and Russia, have already stated that food exports will be reduced or stopped completely this year. Other countries will be forced to rely on their own resources.

Likewise, on local levels, victory gardens and community-supported agriculture, (CSA), are gaining in popularity in response to fears about food supply delays or shortages.

Whether from lack of money in an economic downturn or fewer meat products (as meat packing plants and slaughterhouses are shuttered due to viral outbreaks), people are turning to other protein sources like meat substitutes or beans.

Isn’t it interesting that all of these societal transformations brought about by Covid-19 are identical to those that will curb our climate crisis? In other words, Covid-19 is like a warm-up for how to respond to climate change.

We’re proving every day that we can do it. And fast.

Covid-19 Lesson #2: System-Wide Change Is Needed.

You may think, based on the first Covid-19 lesson, that individual actions are enough to slow climate breakdown. If only people would stop driving and stop eating meat, we could “solve” climate change.

It is true that skies all over the world are clearer now. Fish are returning to waterways where they haven’t been seen for decades.

But these changes are no cause for celebration. They are better viewed as warnings.

In fact, just a few days ago on May 3rd, the carbon dioxide measurement at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reached 418.12 ppm, the highest it’s ever been. The “safe level” is 350 ppm which we passed in 1987.

Upshot: We are in no way alleviating the effects of burning fossil fuels that accumulate over time and persist for decades, by driving and flying less right now. We mustn’t deceive ourselves.

Without a system-wide commitment on the parts of the energy, auto, airline and meat industries to radically transform themselves to be carbon-free enterprises, we will fall into our fossil fuel-dependent ways during the sporadic lulls in viral outbreaks predicted for the next two years at least.

Covid-19 has revealed to us that we’re at a crossroads in human evolution. Before us is the option of renewable energy to power our cities, heat our homes and grow our food. Evidence that renewables are on the rise while fossil energy perishes came last week in an IEA report.

However, the fossil fuel industry wields a mighty stick, controlling a majority of powerful politicians running the show.

It is imperative that there be global public opposition to a return to the fossil fuel status quo. Economic forces are leading the way. The price of oil in the US recently dipped negative, making history. 

In response, European leaders are calling for a green economy as the world attempts to wrangle its way out of a depression. As another example, France announced recently that Air France cannot offer flights when viable train routes exist as a condition for bailout relief. 

UK government advisers are saying the same thing.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is bailing out the fossil fuel industry, in financial trouble even before Covid-19 arrived on United States shores.

The November 2020 election may reverse this trend in the U.S. However, it will fall on the people to elect a Congress that will legislate a green economy, and convince a president to sign it into law.

Covid-19 Lesson #3: Habitat Preservation Is Vital to Our Health.

Scientists and public health experts believe that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 jumped from animals in a Chinese wet market to humans. They predict that it will happen again.

Or, the coronavirus which causes Covid-19 will mutate, possibly becoming more virulent and complicating vaccine discovery. This appears to have already happened.

Even if all wet markets in all countries were banned, viruses normally found in wild animals would still infect humans. The reason for this is habitat loss.

As humans encroach on ecosystems, such as rainforests, the animals living there don’t just disappear. They flee.

But as deforestation intensifies, there are fewer and fewer places for animals to go.

Eventually they wind up in our backyards and parks. Viruses they carry fall in their droppings or land on fruits that they may have bitten into. If humans come in contact with them, viral transmission can happen.

It just takes one incident to start a cascade of events that results in a pandemic. Without early detection and a rapid response to contain it, a viral outbreak is guaranteed. 

Deforestation leads to pandemics. It also contributes to increasing carbon emissions driving our climate crisis. 

The solution to both problems is to stop cutting down forests. 

Since forests are being decimated to grow cash crops, like soybeans, corn and palm oil, people must switch to consuming or using alternatives. Voting with your dollar by boycotting products like meat and foods containing palm oil ingredients is also important. 

You can also raise awareness by speaking with your friends, family and neighbors about the connections between forests, pandemics and many common foods and consumer products. Ask them to make changes in their food choices, too.

This may require a bit of sleuthing on your part. For example, there are hundreds of palm oil-derived ingredients used in all types of products. For additional information, check out the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

Here is an eye-opening infographic from RAN:

Covid-19 Lesson #3: Habitat Preservation Is Vital to Our Health

Regarding meat products, not all restaurants or food companies purchase Amazon beef, corn, or soybeans. However, all conventionally raised meat is produced in a system of industrial agriculture that has already destroyed native ecosystems and wildlife to make room for fields of the crops used to feed the livestock. This represents significant habitat loss.

It also represents a gigantic waste of resources. There is a huge amount of food waste. Producing just one pound of beef in this type of intensive agricultural system requires 7 times more pounds of feed grain and approximately 1,800 gallons of water.

Also, these intensive systems, called confined animal feed operations (CAFOs), depend on millions of pounds of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These farm inputs are all fossil fuel-derived. 

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations’ latest figure (2013) is 14.5% of carbon emissions come from animal agriculture. That’s more than the emissions of cars, trucks and planes combined.

To break out of this system, we must reject all of its products and adopt plant-based alternatives produced through regenerative agriculture.

Then and only then, will human civilization survive, and, possibly, flourish in this century into the next.

Covid-19 Lesson #4: Pandemics and Capitalism Don’t Go Together. 

Even though the world is still in the throes of Covid-19, there are a few startling phenomena revealed in capitalistic systems such as that in the United States. 

When many government leaders in the U.S. insist that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem” or that older individuals are “willing” to die to keep the economy functioning, it’s readily apparent that the numbers of Covid cases and deaths will continue to skyrocket for a long time to come.

This is acceptable to those government leaders.

To me and most of the world, this is shameful.

What’s more abhorrent is when the U.S., arguably a wealthy country, declines to donate even one dollar to a global vaccine development fund to which other countries have donated millions.

Meanwhile, since healthcare for millions of people in the United States is directly dependent on employment, there are now millions of people without jobs or healthcare since the U.S. economy is on a downward spiral.

This is a frightening state of affairs.

Furthermore, the so-called “essential” workers — such as nurses and doctors, farm, grocery store and sanitation workers — are often not provided with face masks, ordered to reuse them over multiple days, or even forbidden to wear their own privately purchased equipment. So, they die.

All of this is a recipe for disaster.

At the very least, this pandemic teaches us that universal preparedness is required to contain it. For instance:

  1. Decoupling healthcare from employment is a critical first step. 
  2. Paying all people a living wage would also better enable people to survive severe economic downturns. At least, doing so would shorten the lines at the food banks, stretching for miles all over the USA right now.

Meanwhile, farmers are literally throwing out tons of food, and the US seeks to lower farmer worker wages.

A socialistic economic system would buffer people against the moral inadequacies of capitalism. More international cooperation is needed as well. Certainly during pandemics. And in “good” times, too.

Covid-19 Lesson #5: Hubris Will Kill Us.

When Covid-19 recedes in intensity, (but will probably not ever completely go away), humans will breathe a sigh of relief. No one knows exactly when this will be.

According to scientists, warning the world even before Covid-19, it’s likely that more coronaviruses will follow unless wildlife habitat is preserved and expanded to make up for all the loss that humans have already inflicted on the planet. (Wet markets must be banned as well.)

Global cooperation, with rich countries investing in health facilities in poorer countries, is vital. So, too, are international funds to build up scientific programs devoted to finding and containing other potentially lethal viruses.

The question before us is: Will humans be able to work together to succeed at these goals? 

Covid-19 has taught us that:

  1. The notion that the “market knows best” is dangerous. 
  2. So, too, is the idea that one country can exist solely on its own. 
  3. Most of all, the assumption that humans are a greater force than nature is also revealed to be pure folly.

Humans desperately need to throw off their false pride that enables them to believe that they can dominate nature and win.

Covid-19 and climate change prove again and again that humans cannot.

Interestingly, the same infrastructure needed to deal with pandemics is required to deal with our climate crisis. People worldwide will need job security and healthcare during and after extreme weather events.

Unfortunately, this needed infrastructure is the bare minimum to cope with climate change.

Consider extended droughts or floods. Many countries have already experienced a taste of these. 

There will be great food insecurity as a result of climate change. 

Intensively grown monocultures are more vulnerable to the ravages of our climate crisis. Investing in a wide variety of locally grown food, produced regeneratively, will enable humans to live through the coming food crises more adaptively.

But there is a more important climate action we must collectively take.

The fossil fuel behemoth must be dismantled. Capitalism is the driving force behind it. Taking down capitalism (or rigorously regulating it) as sketched out here, is a prerequisite for the successful and permanent Keep It In The Ground, Fossil Free Divestment and similar campaigns waged by climate activists. 

Only then will humans be able to limit the degree of intensity of climate change before real catastrophe strikes.

Covid-19 Lesson Wrap Up

The human predicament has never been more precarious than now. We are faced with a coronavirus wreaking havoc on humans all over the globe, resulting in massive loss of life. The global economy is in a major negative tailspin with no end in sight. On top of this, the climate crisis looms.

Climate change will not go away or be put on pause just because we’re in a pandemic.

It’s time to act on the lessons learned from Covid-19:

  1. Transform how we live and work.
  2. Transition into a green economy.
  3. Preserve and restore natural habitat.
  4. Disentangle from capitalism’s grip.
  5. Practice stewardship toward nature.  

Then, and only then, will humanity be able to save itself.